In the “Safe Space” rehearsal room, Alan Fox has heard the words “charged” and “incendiary” thrown around as descriptors of his first full-length play — and he doesn’t mind.
The playwright anticipated his debut world premiere would press hot buttons and pull triggers for both his audiences — starting Tuesday, June 25, at Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor — and the talent in the rehearsal room.
And as each actor embodies a starkly different identity, Fox finds himself one step closer to truly discovering his own.
“Rehearsal is going well. If I’m being honest with you, it’s like I’m, in some ways, along for the ride. Everything’s my first time,” Fox said. “I’ve never been through the experience, but to hear everyone else talk, the process is almost finding the play within the rough draft of it that you bring to the table. That’s the part of the rehearsal process that’s really exciting for me — that it feels like uncovering what the play actually is.”
Helmed by three-time Tony Award winning director Jack O’Brien, “Safe Space” is set at an elite university, where a star African-American professor, portrayed by Rodney Richardson, faces racism accusations from a student, acted by Sasha Diamond, forcing the head of the college, played by Mercedes Ruehl, to intervene.
Together, and separately, they must each navigate an ever-changing minefield of identity politics, ethics and core beliefs after setting off an explosive chain of events.
“Having the space to workshop it, it felt like this process of finding the play and the dramatic arc within the arguments that we’re living in the rough draft,” Fox said. “That’s been really exciting.”
Born and raised in North Carolina, Fox never considered a future in theater, or even the arts, as a child. His identity through high school and college was “the basketball player,” he said with a laugh, until a season-ending injury ground his trajectory to a halt.
“I had a little, mini identity crisis and found myself not showing up to class anymore,” he said. “It was an interesting learning experience for me — 18, 19 years old, and having to find a new identity. For the first time, the injury forced me to reassess who I was and what I wanted to be doing. At the time, it was the worst thing in the world, but in hindsight, it was probably the best thing that ever happened to me.”
Fox dropped out of UNC-Greensboro and eventually landed in the New York modeling scene, shooting for brands such as Abercrombie and Fitch, Adidas, and Men’s Health — Taylor Swift fans may even recognize him from her music video, “Fifteen” — before pivoting toward theater.
“I remember very clearly the first serious play I saw. It was Ayad Akhtar’s play, ‘Disgraced’ and it had this very profound effect on me,” he said. “I was like, ‘Holy cow, you can stay that kind of stuff in the theater? You can do that kind of stuff in the theater?’ It was the moment it really started to click for me.”
He returned to school and graduated magna cum laude from Hunter College in spring 2016, writing in a vacuum on the Lower East Side until the rhetoric surrounding the upcoming election ramped up and ultimately exploded — kick-starting the 29-year-old’s writing career with “Safe Space.”
“After the 2016 election, I had this feeling of a new power that identity politics was having in society, and particularly on the left of the political spectrum. That’s when I tapped into the idea initially,” he said. “It started as this deep interest in the way truth has become subjective; we live in an era of alternative facts.
“At the same time, I had been aware of these protests on college campuses over safe spaces and political correctness. In doing the research, what’s interesting to me is this is nothing new,” he continued. “It comes in waves, and I think that’s good and it’s how progress works. I felt the collision of this new generation of ‘wokeness’ meeting the internet spearheading and accelerating this idea of subjective truth. It is a very weird time.”
O’Brien agreed, signing onto the project and fostering its growth over the last year and a half, Fox said, refusing to back down from the challenging subject matter.
“Jack O’Brien is one of the more special people I’ve ever met, and I think anyone who’s been lucky enough to be around him would probably say the same thing,” he said. “He is so gracious and so generous and so thoughtful. If nothing else were to come out of me writing ‘Safe Space,’ the fact that I got to do this with Jack and learn so much from him would be worth everything.”
Until he arrived in New York, Fox didn’t realize writers “were a thing,” he admitted sheepishly. But backed by a star-studded cast and crew at Bay Street Theater, he is finally embracing his identity as one, he said, and is open to discovering more.
“In culture right now, we’re so quick to draw lines between people of different identities. But I think what people will see in the play is everyone’s a lot more similar than we want to think,” he said. “And what we’re all doing is in, some ways, searching for the same thing, and trying to wrestle toward a similar goal — but we’re all coming at it from different angles and different ways.
“That’s almost been a metaphor for the rehearsal process,” he continued. “We’re all working toward this finish line that we want to get to, and we’re all coming at it from different ways and protecting our points of view. I think it’s been really, really healthy for the play — and for me.”
“Safe Space” will make its world premiere on Tuesday, June 25, at 7 p.m. at Bay Street Theater, located at 1 Bay Street in Sag Harbor. Additional performances will be held on Tuesdays at 7 p.m., Wednesdays at 7 p.m. and select matinees at 2 p.m., Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., and Sundays at 7 p.m. with select matinees at 2 p.m., through July 21. Tickets range from $40 to $135. For more information, call (631) 725-9500 or visit baysteet.org.